Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. One of the big stories this past week was the announcement of Apple's latest and greatest, the iPhone 6. But let's face it, that's about as much a real news story as the introduction of a new flavor of Cap'n Crunch. The real story here is what may happen when millions of people buy the new iPhone and ditch their old one, adding to the problem known as e-waste. You've heard the scenario, piles of discarded electronics winding up in places like China or Africa, where the people who sift through them are exposed to toxic substances. So, is that still happening? David Biello is up to his eyeballs in e-waste, he reports on the subject for Scientific American. First things first David, the level of e-waste generally - going up, going down, staying the same?
David Biello: It's going way, way up, as you would imagine. We live in a more and more connected world, with more and more automation, more and more computers, so e-waste is increasing almost exponentially.
Werman: So which countries are the biggest contributors to this problem?
Biello: The US, the European Union countries, Japan and, increasingly, China, despite perhaps being the developing country and one that's suffered some of the worst population from the e-waste problem, they have started to contribute more and more to the problem as they also tend to covet things like the iPhone.
Werman: Help us out here. What I really want to know is what happens to my old iPhone or any smartphone or mobile when I buy the latest, slickest model. Where does it and its components all end up at the end of the line? Let's start with Apple's own take-back program. I give Apple my own phone, what do they do with it?
Biello: Apple actually is, I would say, among the better of the computer companies in terms of their take-back program. That was the result of some pressure from environmental groups, as you can imagine, but also perhaps Tim Cook's own long involvement in the supply chain.
Werman: Apple's CEO.
Biello: Yeah, exactly. Anyway, they take back the stuff and they typically get involved with a program called e-Stewards. This is a nonprofit organization that is attempting to do the best that can possibly be done with e-waste. So that means either repurposing the gadgets, so stripping it of its information and selling it onto another customer as a refurbished piece of equipment or actually breaking it down into its component parts in a way that doesn't release a lot of toxic materials into the environment. So, refurbished phones are a big part of the global problem and then eventually they too die, then they end up in places like Agbogbloshie in Ghana, where people really are up to their eyeballs in e-waste.
Werman: Apple, it sounds, the way you're describing it, has a good strategy. But how can you really trust that company or any company that says "We're doing X with this phone and this is where it ends up." Can you really know what the end of that chain is?
Biello: It's very difficult and that's one of the problems with solving this problem, is the lack of transparency. So, there are actually a lot of fraudulent companies out there who say that they are doing the right thing and, in fact, don't do it and then typically ship it off to a place where, honestly, children are burning out the components of the cell phone to get at some of the precious materials inside.
Werman: What about countries and government policies on the export of e-waste. What's the situation there?
Biello: That's the real key. There needs to be real penalties and real enforcement for e-waste. So, for example, the EU directly bans the export of e-waste. However, they do not ban the export of a refurbished materials. As a result, you will find a lot of European e-waste in a place like Agbogbloshie, just sitting there. It was exported as refurbished material but ends up being e-waste. In the US, we don't even go that far. We have not signed up to the international treaties banning e-waste. We don't have rules in place. Most of it is voluntary, so what Apple does is done voluntarily, not under threat of punishment. Largely, that's probably because the worst e-waste practices are not happening in upstate New York or rural Missouri, they're happening in other parts of the world.
Werman: Here's the thing - I imagine a lot of people, our own listeners, want the new iPhone but I also imagine many of them don't want to contribute more to the e-waste problem. So, what do advice do you have for a consumer who wants to do the right thing?
Biello: This e-Stewards program is the way to go. They kind of guarantee that chain of custody, which is the key. If you are replacing one Apple product with another, do send it back to Apple, don't consign it to oblivion in a drawer or take it to a city or a local e-waste recycling event.
Werman: I was actually going to ask you about that. Where I live, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they occasionally have a couple of days during the year where they have this local toxic waste drop off. You're indicating that doesn't work so well. Why not?
Biello: It's a great idea and, again, the cities need to follow the same procedures, where you're getting involved with a company or organization that does very strict chain of custody-type work where there's no lost e-waste along the way. So you want to know once my local retailer or once my municipality has collected this e-waste, where is it going to go? And that's what e-Stewards can guarantee for you.
Werman: David Biello covers e-waste for Scientific American. Great to speak with you, thanks.
Biello: Thank you.